How to Start a Great Painting
Will Jackson explains how Judi Betts, AWS starts planning a painting before she picks up her brush
Judi Betts arrived for her sold-out workshop at the Seattle Daniel Smith Store. As she circulated among the students, looking at their paintings, answering questions about supplies and how she works, it quickly became clear that she's a born teacher. She's fun and engaging, a great explainer, skilled at making the meaningful suggestion or gentle observation that can turn a painting around. She has spent plenty of time as a student, too, learning from master watercolor artists such as Millard Sheets, Barse Miller and Rex Brandt.
As this workshop began, the first thing Judi did was ask the participants to tell a little bit about themselves and their work. The group ranged from a book designer in her 20s to a 96-year-old retired architect. Whatever their backgrounds, most said they were there to work on their watercolor technique. Judi's message for these artists was encouraging but pragmatic.
"Millard Sheets said there's always room for good painters," she said. "If you are very true to yourself and work very hard you will succeed as an artist."
Choose subjects you love
Judi emphasized the importance of choosing your subject matter from your heart, rather than sticking with "safe" or sellable subjects. "I have always painted what I wanted to paint. I painted cemeteries and I remember my husband saying 'you'll win prizes for these but you won't sell any.' Thirty-two paintings (later all sold), I moved on to another subject. Finding a style that suits you, that is yours alone, is important for artistic success," she continued. "Dare to be yourself."
She also encouraged the group to "have fun with the things around you. We can always find things to paint. For instance, I like to paint coats on racks. They have wonderful colors and textures and I'm fascinated by them since I live in a place where coats are rarely worn."
Practice, practice, practice
Not surprisingly, Judi also addressed the importance of practice. "I paint all the time. if I'm not literally painting, I'm painting in my mind... looking at color relationships and possible subjects." Her message: wherever you are, whatever you're doing, employ your creativity. "I draw and paint in my letters and on my envelopes. When you send something like that to a creative person, you usually get something creative in return," said Judi. "if you want to be a painter, draw everything, even your grocery list."
In order to become a selling artist, Judi said, "Don't be afraid to show your work at a fair or someplace you set up a booth ... get out there. To be successful, you have to have people see your work." She noted that painting in public is a great way to get people interested in your work and to get feedback about your paintings. If the work languishes in your studio, it doesn't matter how great a painter you are. "Overcome self-criticism," she said, "have a positive attitude and let people see it!"
Use Studies to Improve Composition
Successful paintings start with successful compositions. Judi emphasizes the importance of learning to see value contrast. "Many people won't do the steps, won't take the time to do a value study. But if you want to paint, you need to learn this. The preliminary work takes a long time."
Judi gestured to a wall on which several of her value studies were arranged. Like her paintings, the studies were subtle, full of lively patterns of mostly rather light shades of gray. She acknowledged that she uses darks sparingly in her work, for emphasis. "It's not in me to shout," she said. "The darks in a painting are like shouting."
"There are more than three values," she continued, "but as I work, I'm thinking dark, mid-tone, light. And remember, gray does not necessarily mean light black - it can be a mixture of colors, toward neutral, of course." Judi recommended cameras as "a great source for capturing information. Anytime you use a camera, you're selecting a composition." She also suggests cropping photos or sketches to create more dynamic compositions. "Make sure you use original material-your own photos, for example. And make sure you have a focal point," she said, holding up one of her books as illustration, "This picture shows three horses and a cowboy, but the emphasis is on the hat, the shoulders and the back end of the horse. Look for and create dominance."
Mixing and layering colors creates subtle variations that give your work depth and drama. These three color chords are all based on a triad of DANIEL SMITH Quinacridone Red, Hansa Yellow and Cobalt Blue.
Creating Color Chords
Judi is a deliberate painter who plans her paintings carefully, but she believes in using materials freely and loves to experiment with color mixtures. "To move away from illustration, to loosen up, stand up to paint and use a big brush," she advises. Don't hesitate to use as much paint or paper as you need-and use good paper. "Observe young people painting-they are not afraid of the materials. Our attitudes show in our paintings. If you're uptight, it shows."
To explore color, Judi got the class started on "color chords," a structured exercise in juxtaposing, layering and mixing three colors.
"When I have new colors or colors I haven't used together before, I learn what they will do together by painting color chord sheets and keeping them as references," Judi said. She paints the color chords first and then does a painting with the colors while the newly acquired knowledge is still fresh.
Start by drawing in pencil a series of somewhat parallel lines, straight or wavy, across a sheet of watercolor paper. Judi prefers the fluid appearance that wavy lines provide, resulting in an effect "like folds in a piece of striped fabric."
Choose three colors and paint them in curved, c-shaped stripes between the drawn lines. Experiment with different mixtures and saturations.
For clarity, allow each stroke to dry before layering colors. Judi does not paint wet-into-wet. "When painting with watercolors," Judi advised, "let each layer dry or force it to dry with a blow dryer. Where it's humid you have to be even more careful. Be sure to let it dry before you touch it. When someone tells me 'I've tried watercolor, but I can't control it,' I tell them perhaps they're using too much water."
Over the course of an hour, the students made good progress with their color chords. Although they were following Judi's model, each student's chord was very different from everyone else's, revealing its own artist's style.